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Year of Release: 2000
Cast: Russell Crowe, Joaquin Phoenix, Connie Nielsen, Oliver Reed, Richard Harris, Derek Jacobi, Djimon Hounsou
Director: Ridley Scott
Writers: David H. Franzoni, John Logan, William Nicholson
Rating: R
Running Time: 154 Minutes (2 hours, 34 minutes)

Gladiator is a film that I really wanted to love. A big, expensive epic set in the world of Ancient Rome, with an extremely promising cast featuring such notables as Russell Crowe, Oliver Reed, Richard Harris, and Derek Jacobi, and directed by Ridley Scott, helmer of several modern classics including Alien, Blade Runner, and Thelma and Louise -- what could possibly go wrong? As it turns out, several things can go wrong, and did. What I wanted was a modern masterpiece that would be able to stand alongside the great Hollywood epics such as Ben-Hur and Spartacus. What I got was a second-rate action movie that suffers from a lifeless screenplay and several bad technical decisions.

The story involves a general, Maximus (Russell Crowe), who wins victories for Rome on the battlefield and is chosen as the next protector of the empire by the dying emperor, Marcus Aurelius (Richard Harris). But when the emperor's ambitious son Commodus (Joaquin Phoenix) learns that his father favors Maximus over himself, he concocts and executes a plan to put Maximus out of the way. After much suffering, Maximus becomes a slave and falls under the training of former gladiator Proximo (Oliver Reed), all the while planning his revenge on the treacherous Commodus. His skills no doubt sharpened by his experiences on the battlefield, Maximus turns out to be a powerful gladiator and soon finds himself at the famous Colosseum in Rome. Meanwhile, Commodus has been named emperor and has already managed to make enemies through his petulance. One senator in particular, Gracchus (Derek Jacobi), feels that the new young ruler has too much power, and Commodus' own sister Lucilla (Connie Nielsen) fears for herself and her young son. Conspiracies, backstabbings, and deadly duels follow.

It's a Shakespearean plot, no doubt, but it's too bad that the script doesn't live up to such noble aspirations. Predictable at every turn and filled with laughably cheesy dialogue at times, the story never really allows us to connect emotionally with any of the main characters involved. The scenes that are meant to move us to tears only end up making us think of how many other movies have done exactly the same thing, only better. In addition, for a movie that proposes to recreate Rome in all its ancient glory, there is a curious lack of behind-the-scenes looks into the city itself and the inner workings of the Colosseum (we never even meet any actual Roman citizens, only high-ranking city officials). We just move from dialogue scene to fight scene, back and forth, again and again. A high-profile project like this one deserves better than the empty screenplay provides it.

A movie can overcome a weak screenplay if it is technically marvelous (see: Titanic, Braveheart), and therein lies the ultimate crutch that prevents Gladiator from being a really great film. Taking a cue from Spielberg's Saving Private Ryan, Scott films the opening battle sequence and the subsequent gladiatorial battles in shaky closeups, using skipped frames to convey an impression of disorientation similar to that which would be found in reality. But there's a difference between reality and a movie, and sometimes it helps to just pull the camera back and let the viewers see the action. Whereas Private Ryan's battle scenes were so expertly choreographed that the herky-jerky action added to the feeling of being there, Gladiator's fights are so poorly edited that they end up being distracting. The use of both slow motion and sped-up action to portray the chaos of being in a real battle is a worthy effort, but here the frames feel confusing and cramped. This leads to a loss of focus, which ultimately results in a loss of suspense.

Gladiator has other problems as well. The photography for epics needs to be awe-inspiring, but here it's just passable. One of the most jaw-droppingly bad choices occurs during the introduction to Rome, in which both the establishing overhead shot and the entrance into the city are heavily tinted blue. It makes us wonder if this dark tint might not have been used to cover up some lame visual effects work; our introduction to Rome should be grand, but instead it looks phony. In fact, most of the CGI in the movie stands out rather than blending in, and it's easy to point out what is and isn't computer-generated (note to visual-effects supervisors: we don't need birds flapping across the screen every time an expensive CGI shot is used).

The fine cast do well in their respective roles, for the most part, although they are forced to sport cheesy British accents, and the script does not give them a whole lot of material to work with. Russell Crowe fits the part of a Hector-type ancient warrior fantastically well, but he doesn't have a chance to do much of anything but scowl here. Crowe is good at scowling, undoubtedly, but this is not his finest work as an actor (his role in last year's little-seen critical hit The Insider towers over his performance as Maximus, mainly due to the depth of character). Joaquin Phoenix is also good if a little over-the-top as the villainous Commodus, even though some of his lines of dialogue are embarrassing. The great British actor Derek Jacobi is completely wasted as Senator Gracchus, although Connie Nielsen is luminous as Lucilla, and Richard Harris brings nobility to his small role. But it is Oliver Reed who stands out above the rest, completely stealing the screen every time he's on it (this is his last film role; he died shortly before finishing shooting, and his last couple of scenes were completed with camera trickery and digital effects).

Seriously flawed though it is, Gladiator is impressive in many ways. The massive production is at times awe-inspiring as far as costumes, sets, and gigantic crowd scenes go (although I wonder if any film project couldn't achieve the same with enough money pumped into it). The opening battle scene in Germania is admirable in its scope if not in its execution. I enjoyed the obvious parallels between the bloodthirsty crowds of ancient Rome and modern day sports spectators, and there is thankfully no comic relief character to hurl one-liners at us, as is the case with most big Hollywood films. It may not be the new Spartacus, but Gladiator has a certain magic to it, and it is highly entertaining and completely engrossing despite its many flaws. What we end up with is sadly not a masterpiece, but an above-average traditional Hollywood blockbuster, which could have been better but certainly could have been much worse.

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